EVERY Promise is a slow burner of a novel. I can imagine readers being irked and bored by the first pages, and giving up on the book.
by Andrea Bajani
Maclehose, 219pp, £15.99
These pages, in which the narrator, Pietro, a young teacher in an elementary school, recollects the slow disintegration of his marriage because of their inability to have a child, are lacking in vitality. Sentence after sentence tells you what they would do.
Perhaps the translator, Alastair McEwen, who has otherwise made a very good job of what I suspect was a difficult book to render into English, has made a mistake by using the habitual “would do” form to translate the Italian imperfect tense, rather than choosing the simple past one, and saying “we did”.
Be that as it may, the novel comes to life on page 23, when Pietro comes home from school to find a note from his wife, Sara, who is leaving him. It reads: “Your mother called. Mario is dead.” Mario? “Mario,” he writes, “was my mother’s father, and for at least fifteen years nobody had mentioned his name”.
He has childhood memories of him, coming occasionally with his mother, Giovanna, to collect him at the school gates: a very tall man with a ruined face. Mario, we learn , has spent most of his life in a mental hospital.
He served in the Italian division sent to fight alongside their German allies on the Eastern Front, was taken prisoner by the Russians and held for years before being repatriated and left with terrible memories. He was sometimes violent, at other times remote and silent. Pietro comes on photographs he kept. They show his comrades: “The dots are for the missing, the crosses are for the dead, and those with no mark are the living.” Mario himself is the only one in the photographs with neither dot nor cross.
Now, with Sara pregnant by another, younger, man and relying on his mother for support, the emptiness in Pietro’s life is filled by a meeting with another Italian veteran of Mussolini’s disastrous decision to send Italian troops to Russia. Olmo has not been as thoroughly destroyed by his experiences as Mario was. Unlike him, he manages to function. But he cannot escape his memories of horror or his own guilt. He pores over maps of Russia. He shows Pietro his old uniform hanging in a wardrobe and insists that he try it on. Worst of all, he too has photographs and one of them haunts Pietro, keeping him from sleep at night. It shows three Italian soldiers standing in front of goalposts, and a boy hanged from their crossbar. Pietro asks if Olmo is one of the soldiers; no, he says, he took the photograph.
At Olmo’s urging, Pietro goes to Russia. It is a way of coming to terms with Mario as well as with Olmo’s past. It is also a means, he hopes, of engaging with his own perplexities, of understanding his mother’s complicated relationship with Mario (whom his father tried to exclude entirely from their lives), and perhaps of repairing his own fractured marriage.
The Russian section of the novel is beautifully written, rich in detail, moving, with touches of humour. Pietro finds friendship there, from a woman, Olga, who works as a receptionist in the town by the River Don where Olmo took that terrible photograph.
He meets an elderly women who still proudly wears medals awarded by the long-gone Soviet regime for her work as a tractor-driver - medals which invite the mockery of the young - and also Olga’s own grandfather, himself a war veteran. “All the Italian he knew were three words that for him were one along…. Sacramento porca Madonna.”Later, “Olga told me that the land there” – outside her grandfather’s house – “was full of dead, the fields, the trees and this house, and her grandfather’s brother, he too was under the black earth …”
Every Promise is a difficult novel to summarise, because no summary can do justice to its intelligence or the manner in which Bajani employs seemingly irrelevant details to compose the picture he is making. It’s a novel which requires close reading and a willingness to surrender to its mood, a mood that is elegiac, bitter-sweet, troubled, uncertain of the meaning and value of experiences. You may begin by finding it boring; that was my experience. But if you persist you will be drawn into it, you will recognize that the narrator, who at first seems inadequate, is in a sense Everyman, seeking to understand and come to terms with the baffling nature of others’ experience of life. In short this is a novel that ultimately delivers much more that at first it seems to promise to offer.